Archive for category All Things Tech

Job Security?

I’ve been at this high-tech gig for over 30 years now in various industries; aerospace, printers, compilers, and now health care insurance. You would think that after this long a guy could kick back a little bit and feel secure. Such is not the case.

Something changed right about when I started working in 1980, or perhaps just a bit before in the late 1970’s. Job security went the way of the hoola-hoop.

I remember growing up in the 60’s and early 70’s when people had jobs and kept them for long periods of time, and didn’t feel like they needed to be looking over their shoulders every week. Company loyalty actually existed in both directions. Pensions came with the territory instead of self-directed savings plans. That must have been nice. Work for a goodly spell, then retire comfortably.

Every single job I’ve had felt like there was a layoff just around the corner, and there usually was. Even in management. At one company I was managing a small team and we saw the outsourcing movement coming our way and I prepared myself for the eventuality that I may have to RIF a team member or two. But we never got word of the upcoming RIF. Why? Because managers were targets too! That was a humbling realization.

I’ve been laid off one time, but have had no gaps in employment due to being given 6 months notice of the pending shut-down, so I was able to line up a new employer as the job ended. It seems as though I should get some credit for the equivalent of navigating a 40′ sailboat through Deception Pass or something else really hard.

I’ve tried to explain this to people that are not in high-tech and often get blank stares. Huh? I just go to work every day and don’t worry about it too much. Oh, to be you.

If memory serves, it started with the hyperinflation economy circa the Carter Administration, but got even worse afterwards. Reagan laid the hammer down on the air-traffic controllers and showed ’em who’s boss. That was really bad news for unions which also coincides with the initial demise of the middle class.  The experiment with trickle down economics laid on more pressure to the working class and furthered the divid between the rich vs. the poor.

Then came NAFTA. Ross Perot nailed it with his “Giant sucking sound” comment. I don’t know that something like NAFTA wasn’t inevitable. I sort of doubt the United States could have gotten away with being too isolationist for very long. But man, the effects of all of this has really sucked the energy out of me. For 35 years!

Suddenly layoffs aren’t just commonplace, but expected. Constantly. Look out because the Vice Presidents are under tremendous pressure to show cost savings and productivity improvements. If your job is classified as ‘overhead’, all the worse for you. It was always best to be tied directly to some project work. Unless of course, your project were to be canceled. If you switch jobs, be prepared to start all over and prove yourself no matter how senior your job title says you are. You are replaceable, don’t kid yourself.

How many hours have I wasted worrying about being considered redundant and all the comes with it. Having to break the news to the family. Possibly losing a house and getting in a bad credit situation. Having to take a lesser job to keep putting food in the mouths of 5 people.  Having to go back to school and learn a completely new skill.  A LOT of sleepless nights.

In the 1990’s, outsourcing became the buzzword that showed up on a lot of VP’s powerpoint slides. They couldn’t just come in and propose 5% cost cutting. They were under pressure to come up with a ‘game changing’ idea. Outsourcing tech labor to India or the Far East was the trendy thing to do. Initially the numbers were hard to deny. Labor in India was about 20% of the U.S. rate. It’s since risen to closer to 50% as the global playing field levels a bit, but that’s still a big number. To make matters worse, you could expect to be asked to start looking for a new job while training your replacement. I did for a while. Then one day I just let them know that I was no longer interested in training my replacement. That turned some heads but I got away with it. Not sure how I did, but I just couldn’t train that guy for one more minute.

Meanwhile, in the good old U.S. we have extremists promoting ‘pure capitalism’ as if the human race would be best governed by the laws of Natural Selection. Every man for himself. Dog eat dog. Whatever it takes just so long as nobody’s gonna be mooching off me. The odd thing is, even during the halcyon days of the 1950’s that the pundits like to harken back on as the peak of our exceptionalism, we’ve never been a pure capitalist nation. Taxes were more than double what they are now for the top earners. Our economic policies have always been a combination of capitalism and socialism, just a matter of degree.

I wonder what it would be like to work at a job where the pace was normal and the expectations weren’t unrealistic? Every company I’ve worked for feels like someone’s hair is on fire and the schedule pressures you feel are very real. It’s hard to maintain a healthy lifestyle when you feel the need to work 60 hours a week, often through lunch, and forego your exercise routine in order to help the team meet a specific deadline. God knows you don’t want to be the one called out for holding things up in a status meeting. Anything but that.

There may be hope for future generations. The playing field has leveled quite a bit. Many companies have gone to the school of hard knocks with the outsourcing plans and many have reverted back for a variety of reasons. Some underestimated how difficult it would be to deal with the timezone differences. Others forgot to pencil in additional capital for the bandwidth required to do distributed development. In some cases it’s been the language barrier was too much to bear. 50% is a big number, but there’s a well documented downside now and more outsourcing proposals are getting met with “not-so-fast”.

I’d like to come in at 8:30 every day, always take an hour long lunch and visit with people in mostly non-work conversation, do some interesting work and then go home around 5-ish and leave my troubles behind. And not have to worry about scenarios that might wind a guy up on someone’s RIF list. Sadly, I don’t think I’ll get to experience this in my lifetime.

If you have an everyday job and don’t lay awake at night worrying about job loss frequently, then give some thanks. Well played, I envy you.

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Password overload: In search of the universal password

After signing up for an account on github yesterday, I was forced to log yet another password ( that’s YAPW for you Open Source geeks ). The list looked a little on the long side so I decided to do a word count on it. 71 passwords.

Managing passwords is inherently frustrating because the rules are different from site to site. My own password evolution has not gone the way I had planned. I started out with a simple 7 letter lower-case alpha-numeric sequence that was easy for me to remember.

Soon after, I started having regrets as I ran into sites that had a minimum requirement of 8 characters. Okay, I’ll add an extra number, that’s how I’ll deal with that one. Then sites started requiring 8 characters and at least one alpha character must be capitalized. Arggghh! Now I have 3 incantations of my password to remember so I need to start writing them down. Maybe I’ll just invent a new universal password that will work in all of these situations. That’s it!

I’ll invent an 8 character, alpha-numeric password with at least one upper-case character. Then I won’t have to look these up so often. I just have to remember to not invent one that causes me to switch back and forth between screens on my smart-phone 5 times to get it typed in, so it’s better if we don’t put numbers and characters next to each other very often.

But wait, there’s more! Now some sites want min 8 characters, alphanumeric with at least one Capitalized AND at least one special character! Crap! Now I have to re-invent my universal password again! But here it is, the universal password of my dreams. Aqa,1234. It has everything a site could require, right?

Turns out that’s not the case. Some sites prohibit special characters. Crap! Now I have to create a 9 character alpha-numeric password with at least one letter in caps and put the special character on the end.

Whew! I’m all set. I’m not looking forward to going back and retro-fitting all of my previous accounts though, with my new universal password strategy.

Hold on a second, I’ve got mail. Crap, my password expires in 4 days and 4 of the sites and I cannot re-use any of my old passwords. I’m giving up on the notion of a Universal Password.

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Successful senior leaders? In search of the beef

Xerox : The Seattle Mariners of the High Tech Industry

You know, I’m trying really hard not to be ‘that guy’, .. the disgruntled former employee with an ax to grind, ranting on his former employer, the one who done him wrong.  The problem is, I lived this insanity for 12 years and when I see articles like this one, on current CTO Sophie Vandebroek and the importance of work-life balance and a focus on hiring more female engineers, I have a hard time containing myself from  publicly questioning what are the traits of successful leadership?  By what measure do we decide someone is worthy of a writeup..  to be held up as an example for others to follow?

A blog post like the this one is so easily misinterpreted, it demands copious amounts of up-front disclaimers, otherwise it’s so easy to be erroneously labeled a woman-hater or a racist or you name it.  That’s the last thing I want so I want to be abundantly clear on this issue.  At the end of the day, all I ask is for reader to understand a particular point of view, nothing else.  I seek to do no individuals any harm.  I’d like to believe I’ve moved on in a very positive way since my days at Xerox.  Live is good.  I love my new job.  The work is very interesting.  My co-workers are great.  I’m thriving and the change has been just what the doctor ordered.  In no way am I wallowing in self-pity here about the loss of what once was, at good old Xerox.

While I miss the interactions with the local folks at Wilsonville and a few at other sites, I do not miss reading the communiques’ of Sr. Management, whom I have no respect for what-so-ever.  Truth be told, I think they are an arrogant group of buffoons who, if provided a 50 million dollar lab with the world’s top scientists, couldn’t manage their way to see one useful money making product surface in their lifetime.

My hope is that they will eventually meet their fate, and I hope that’s sooner rather than later for the benefit of those left behind.

The topic of successful women in the workplace is an interesting one, especially given the recent media attention given to Sheryl Sandberg and her book Lean In.  I have not read Lean In, but I agree in principle with the notion that women should be encouraged to Lean In in the work environment and make their voices heard.  They should not let gender be a barrier at any time.  If they have good ideas, by all means, don’t be shy, let’s hear what they have to say.  I don’t know anything about Sheryl other than what I saw on a 60 Minutes interview, but I must admit she was very impressive on camera, at least to me, and in my estimation, likely deserving of the accolades she was receiving at Google, and then Facebook in her new role as a Senior Leader.  So good for you, Sheryl.  Congratulations.  It sounds like you’ve done a great job adding value to your company.  I don’t begrudge you your millions and I’d be proud to work in your organization if the opportunity were ever there.

What drives me nuts about Xerox (as I posted earlier in an inside look at the real Ursula Burns ), is that the senior leaders spend so much time and energy promoting the company persona ( which is an extreme distortion of the truth ), that they forget what they are there for in the first place — to run a technology company and surface new products so that the company can grow and profit.

First and foremost, Xerox likes to promote the idea that they value a diverse workforce.  The image they like to project is, “We are the premier place to work for women and minorities.”  I have no issue with a diverse workforce.  None.  Zilch.  Nada.  I participated in annual college recruiting trips where giving the nod to women and minorities was policy.  Not just encouraged, it was policy.  I won’t go into details here, but without a doubt, the stated ‘policy’ was borderline affirmative action and even (gasp) reverse discrimination, which as a white male, trouble me a bit.  But I looked the other way for a while and tried my best to get on board, even though I questioned the intelligence of the direction as well as the fairness and legality of it.  Later on I figured out the underlying reason for all of these ‘policies’.    Xerox cares deeply about its corporate image in this regard. It wants a top 10 ranking in Diversity, Inc. and it’s willing to jump through copious hoops and spare no expense to get it.  Not that this has helped the bottom line in any way that I can see.  It is what it is.

So hopefully that’s enough full disclosure and up-front qualification about my motives for publishing an opinion on a very controversial, practically ‘no-win’ topic like criticizing a company for their endless promotion women for well, just being women who have attained Sr. Level positions.  Ursula Burns and Sophie Vandebroek both qualify.

So here’s the rub on Ursula and Sophie.  I’m sure they are both savvy individuals.  There’s no denying they’ve attained Sr. Level positions in a fortune 500 Company.  I just have one question.  When do I get to read an article about Ursula or Sophie that states a business accomplishment that stands on its own merits whether the person was male or female?  Something that resulted in the company making millions because of their insight or management style or whatever.  I don’t really care.   I want to read about a new invention.  A management decision.  A fork in the road decision that resulted in a new direction that was prosperous for shareholders and employees alike.  I want to learn why the millions that are being directed towards these Sr. Execs’ salaries and bonuses are worth every penny!

There’s no shortage of articles on Ursula and Sophie as ‘powerful women’, and to be sure, Ursula as CEO of Xerox, commands a ton of power.  All the fuss about a minority women making the Sr. ranks would be a great story and she’d have legions of followers if only there were some meat to it.  The numbers appear to suggest failure vs. success.  Xerox stock isn’t skyrocketing under Ursula’s leadership, it’s tanking.  At 26%, Ursula has the lowest approval rating of any Fortune 500 CEO on glass  .  By contrast, even Larry Ellison, who has a reputation for being pretty ruthless at times with his employees, weighs in with an 82% approval rating.   Something’s not right with Ursula with a rating that low because if it was just a case of “She’s ruthless but gets results”, she’d have a much higher rating.  She’s that unfortunate combination of ruthless AND no results.

Anne Mulcahy obtained notoriety for the Xerox ‘Turnaround’ that happened in early 2001.  The stock price went from $19 a share down to under $5, and through some restructuring and selling off pieces of the business, she was able to instill a bit more confidence in investors so the stock rallied back to the high teens.  Ursula officially took the helm as CEO in 2009 when the stock price was $6.81 a share, but she’d been running the company as President long before that and saw the price has dipped from the mid-teens down to $8.80 where it is today.  Here’s the long term chart.  This is a success story?  Isn’t this a little like Little League where they give out participation trophies just for putting on the uniform once in awhile?

The Xerox Innovation Group and PARC hasn’t invented any revolutionary new products under Sophie’s tenure as CTO, it’s the same old story of Xerox missing the boat on key technologies.  It doesn’t matter if the director of player/personnel managed to develop Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, and Alex Rodriguez into superstars, they won’t be making money for the Mariners franchise for long.  Like the Mariners, Xerox is a farm team for the rest of the league.  And it’s even worse than this because the entire outfield has been outsourced to an Indian Partner.  The management team concluded that the pitching staff is so awesome that it’s unlikely any balls will make it to the outfield, but if they do, HCL Technologies will be available via phone support to direct the other players on the field on the best course of action.  Just submit a ticket first.

In fact, it’s so bad under Sophie’s leadership, that Xerox has pretty much abandoned the notion of participating as a Technology Leader and instead, moved towards a Services model.  Have you seen the new commercials?  Xerox : Call Centers R Us.

They can’t get there fast enough because well, there are no new inventions to product-ize.  Or maybe there are and I just don’t know about them.  I’d love to be proven wrong, but just once, I’d like to pick up an article on Ursula or Sophie and read about something tangible to the business that justifies the accolades that are constantly thrown at them via articles and media attention.  Instead, I read about Sophie and how she’s keenly aware of work-life balance, and the importance of hiring women engineers.  That’s all good fluff, but give me an example of how any of this has benefited Xerox’s bottom line.  Just one example.  Please?

Steve Jobs had a reputation of being a total jerk to his co-workers and employees, but he got results.  So when I read about the successes at Apple, I can at least link a person’s behaviors to the outcome.  I may not like the behaviors, but at least it’s possible to say yeah, Steve’s demanding personality along with his deep understanding of engineering and technology, probably had something to do with driving the Apple engineering teams to crank out excellent products.  I’d feel the same way if it was Stephanie Jobs. Either way, it’s an interesting story to read and the point is, it’s about success.

What I don’t like to read, is stories about senior leaders making the rounds as key-note speakers, with nothing underneath the story to support why there’s is a ‘success’ story.  Near as I can tell, with Sophie, it’s a story because she’s a CTO and a woman.  With Ursula, it’s a story because she’s CEO and she’s both a woman and a minority.  How about a story about the latest invention?  Or a stock price surge?  Or a new direction that has panned out?  I can easily articulate 5 dumb decisions that have not panned out by Ursula, not the least of which would be massive amounts of outsourcing that fly completely in the face of helping her precious diversity agenda.  Ironically, with the outsourcing movement to India, no single person has hurt diversity in the workforce at Xerox more than Ursula Burns.  She can lay claim to elaborate diversity initiatives around the college hire process, for what, 3 positions?  Meanwhile, key engineers of all persuasions are leaving in droves to go work for a company willing to invest in innovation.  Why doesn’t Diversity, Inc write about that?  Instead it’s this constant barrage of “Ursula made another top 10 list of powerful women” and “Sophie’s great.  She went to MIT and has a PhD from Cornell, so she’s awesome.  What else do these senior leaders bring to the table besides their ability to climb the corporate ladder?

So I’m back to, Where’s the Beef?

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FM frustrates me to no end

Sometimes software programmers get too cute.  Every time I turn around, they exercise a technique called “Information Hiding” where supposedly all those nitty-gritty details that you don’t need to worry about are tucked away in a far away method that you either don’t have access to or will take a week to discover.  The problem is, when I’m debugging, I want access to everything.  I don’t want to have to go read up on your little API and sort through 60 methods to find the one I’m interested and how to use it before I can continue my debugging session.  I want to be able to “see” what’s happening on the other side when I invoke a method.  Such is the case with Java.

I’m using an Open Source Continuous Integration Build tool called Jenkins to deploy some WAR files to Tomcat containers.  All I need to do is setup Jenkins to pull in a dynamic list.  To get my list in true dynamic fashion I have to go through 3 layers of programming interfaces before I can actually think in terms of one of the simplest data structures, a List.

Jenkins employs something called “Scriptler” which is a fancy name for calling a “Groovy” script. Groovy is a dynamic language that is basically a layer on top of Java with some additional features.   Oh, and there are other Java plugins involved just to throw in a few more variables about what could be different between systems.

The problem I’m having is that on Apache Tomcat, with a specific version of Java under the hood, I can get my list to display properly in Jenkins.  For some reason under SpringSource Tomcat, it doesn’t want to work.  This line:

def line = new File(prefix + appServerType + “/” + envType + “/jvms_by_server”).readLines()

On Apache, “line” results in an array of lines snarfed in from my file “jvms_by_server”:

  • mxp1
  • mxp2
  • etc.

On SpringSource, “line” results in [big-long-line-of-all-tye-lines-in-my-file-as-a-single-element]

So it doesn’t display right.

In both situations I’m passing the exact same array back to the caller, up through Java, Groovy, Scriptler, and finally back to Jenkins — none of which I can “see”.  So how do you explain how it works?  In Software-speak, we call that “Fucking Magic”, aka FM.

I have no way to trace the flow of execution because everything is just a little too cute.

I miss strcat, strlen, strcmp, and strcpy and being able to visualize every character in an array from main() to the lowest level subroutine with good old fashioned gdb.  Got an extra “\n” in there?  Chop off your char *ptr by a character and be done with it already!

Screw FM, I want me some good old fashioned C code so I can see what the hell I’m doing!

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Ursula Burns

Full disclosure.  I worked for Xerox for 12 years and for the company it acquired, Tektronix, 6 years before that, as both an Engineer and an Engineering Support Manager of a Tools group.  I left in July of 2012 on my own terms.

From the beginning in 2000 when Xerox acquired Tektronix for 1 Billion dollars, the culture shock of  a large bureaucratic corporation’s management style was a tough pill to swallow for the good folks at the Wilsonville, Oregon site.  But we had faith.  “We hope some of your fast and nimble ways will rub off on our people”, the Sr. Management Team would say.  Those turned out to be pretty shallow words over time.

The acquisition itself was all about trying to regain a presence in the growing Office space.  At first blush, it seemed like a pretty good match of companies.  Xerox had recently decided to exit its Inkjet venture, and was left with a still fairly strong Production Printing business ( big Iron printers for copy centers ), a small but growing Services business, but had holes in its Office product offerings.  This is where Tektronix’s product line could help fill the gap with Color Laser printers and a new technology they seemed to be pretty stoked about, Solid Ink.

Xerox has a rather unusual culture, even for a large corporation, especially after the promotion of Ursula Burns to President of the Office Group.  Ursula didn’t waste any time communicating her values to her minions.  Instantly we all heard about fixing the diversity problem which was followed by a new set of criteria in our hiring practices complete with an extremely elaborate College Recruiting process that would ensure a more diverse work force.  This by far took precedence over running a profitable business.  The Staffing department got a new name.  “Talent Acquisition and Diversity”

Ursula didn’t waste any time communicating who was in charge, either.  She decided all hiring decisions including temps required her approval at a time when the Wilsonville site was ramping up for the biggest project in its history ( or at least trying to ).  Exacerbated by her announcement that she could only be bothered with approving Staffing Requisitions once a month.  It simply didn’t work but she was steadfast in her insistence on being in charge, especially on all things budgetary for a very long time.  I think it drove the VP’s crazy because they were used to being empowered to get projects done and suddenly they have to make a case for every temp hire?  We’re hiring 10 a week, or at least trying to.  But from the get-go, Ursula let everyone know who was in charge and that she means business.

Meanwhile, the CEO at the time, Anne Mulcahy, was busy making sure that the face of Xerox was one where people recognize women and minorities would thrive.  She made Ursula Burns her heir apparent, and it played right into the corporate values message.

This is all well and good if your business is doing well and growing.  We were not.  We were under constant cost pressures to get the price of the hardware down, to add new features to differentiate and truly compete in this market space.  But rarely did Ursula communicate to the worker-bees the need for innovation.  She was quite content with mediocrity, as long as it was achieved with a diverse workforce and Xerox’s Senior Managers made the cover of Diversity Inc.  Truth be told, there were a lot of us who truly wanted her to succeed.  We wanted to be a part of this great story of an African-American woman who rose from the ranks to be Chairman of a Fortune 100 Company, and would be proud to be a part of a company that values diversity.  But we kept searching for what else she brought to the table besides her minority status and assertive style.

At the height of the lunacy, our division President, Jim Miller died suddenly.  Ursula had a big decision to make on who would succeed him.  Not being able to make up her mind apparently, and wanting to push her ever-important diversity agenda, she came up with the brilliant idea of co-Presidents.  One Sr. guy from Wilsonville, and another Sr. Manager from Rochester, an African-American.  Both very fine gentlemen.  One a technology guy, one not.  The problem was, the guy from Rochester didn’t pan out.  A more senior manager confided in me that at an analysts meeting he simply did not know the products and made some embarrassing statements.  He got promoted for the wrong reasons.  I’m sure this was a tough one for Ursula.  She desperately wanted to make a statement with this appointment but her best minority candidate wasn’t ready for the job and it was too risky to put him in there without some help.

The College Hire process crossed the line for me in about 2006.  Prior to that I had volunteered to help out with College Recruiting which meant doing a campus visit or two per year and talking to College kids to get the best ones into our design groups.  We were looking for Mechanical Engineers primarily, but also some Software Engineers.

For awhile the College Recruiting experience was pretty rewarding.  It meant getting to meet some really bright kids and some very prestigious schools and hear about their internships and what they’d been working on and what they thought they wanted to do with their careers.  I remember thinking it’s a good thing I’m not applying for my own job a few times.  There seemed to be no shortage of excellent candidates everywhere we went.

The irony of it all, is that most years, we had significant budget constraints for the business.  But we never take shortcuts on the College Recruiting process, even if we didn’t really have very many positions to fill.  Some years we would send a contingent of 5 or 6 people on these trips as far as the East Coast and only have a 3 or 4 open requisitions to fill.  Having seen the long lines at the Oregon State college fair, and plethora of qualified candidates for college hire positions (and a reasonably diverse population to choose from), I never understood why we would have such an elaborate process in place to fill so few positions.  And then it dawned on me.  It’s because they need to have a story to tell when Diversity, Inc comes calling.  Nothing shall get in the way of us being in the top 10 list in those rankings.

The initial process as explained to me seemed to make sense.  The idea was that if we made certain our recruiting trips were targeted for Colleges and Universities with a diverse student population, then it would follow that a diverse workforce would flow out of that.  Okay.  I get it.  I’m on board.  No issues.

I only went on a few trips but given the strategy above, it was never clear to me that the sites picked for college recruiting would really accomplish the goal of a diverse workforce.  Stanford.  UCLA, Washington, Purdue, MIT.  I would have thought we’d be headed down to Tuskegee University or Auburn, but what do I know?

Anyway, it was a great experience talking to the kids and evaluating candidates and even hiring a few but you definitely got the sense from the “Talent Acquisition and Diversity” team that women and minorities who were qualified, would get extra consideration.  It felt a little bit like we might be brow-beat into hiring the #2 or #3 person on our list if their skin was the right color.  Hmmmm…  Definitely a vibe there.  This isn’t reverse discrimination, is it?

Then 2006 rolled around and the rules changed.  Xerox played host to college hires with an evening soiree to meet the managers and learn more about the company.  While being contacted about this year’s recruiting events I learned that the strategy this year was to make a trip to the University of Washington in Seattle, and come back with a bus-load of minorities, and only minorities, for the evening soiree.  That’s when I checked out.  I simply could not participate in an exercise that was clearly reverse discrimination.  These kids wait in line for a long time to talk to us at times.  Each and every one of them thinks they might have a shot at an interview if they say the right thing or impress in some way.  I simply could not play the game of looking at non-minority candidates and feeding them a line of shit as if they had a chance for a job with us, knowing full well that the screening process included filtering out Caucasians, no matter how qualified they were.  Now it truly is only about skin color.  I’m out.  I don’t know that Ursula made this particular edict herself, but clearly someone in HR was trying to impress Ursula with how well we are towing the line on her diversity priority.

Meanwhile, Ursula fulfilled Anne’s vision of heir apparent and became President of the entire company followed by CEO and Chairman of the Board.

Ursula had a pretty tough task from the start, inheriting a technology business where printing was becoming less popular, but once the iPads came out, it was over for printing.  To her credit, I think she recognized that fairly early on and changed the focus from trying to have printing and technology be the main revenue stream, to services.

That actually makes some sense from a business standpoint.  She acquired a company called ACS with a strong services track record and decided to try to marry the Xerox brand name with a progressive Services Company.  So far it looks like a decent play.  The challenge she has is that the margins are lower in the Services business so while it’s growing, it’s not as profitable as the technology business once was.

Ursula’s made two huge mistakes along the way though that are going to put major dents in her legacy.  The first one was retaining an incredibly dysfunctional staff with no clue how to grow a technology business.  Xerox invests millions if not billions of dollars in R&D and has virtually nothing to show for it.  The stories are legendary and date back to the 70’s, but virtually nothing has changed about Xerox’s inability to bring innovative ideas to market despite their enormous investments in R&D.  They are however, very good at promoting the fact that their CTO, Sophie Vandebroek, is of the female variety.  Diversity accomplished I guess.  I met Sophie Vandebroek back in about 2004 before she became CTO.  She’s a very smart lady and didn’t get her PhD from MIT for nothing.  There were some politics in play over the project I was trying to get budget for and it ended in a stalemate because the senior managers couldn’t agree on how to proceed.  Ultimately the project was canceled.  My only criticism of Sophie isn’t personal at all and it’s not just directed at Sophie, it’s all the CTO’s before her.  Where are the products?  Why isn’t Ursula holding the CTO and the overseer’s of the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) accountable for inventing the new office?  I’ve never understood that and I think that’s a huge oversight by Ursula as CEO and Chairman of the Board, to not have a steady flow of new products coming out of the company’s so-called innovation engine.

The other observation I have about the Sr. Staff and its dysfunctional ways was its inability to make a decision.  When Xerox bought Tektronix in 2000, we met shortly thereafter and compared tool-sets.  As manager of the Tools group I was involved in that process.  The match could not have been worse.  They used NX and we used ProE.  They used Mentor and we used Cadence.  They used TeamCenter and we used a home grown PLM Tool.  They used ClearCase UCM and we used base ClearCase.  Xerox had ( and still has ) about 5 different bug tracking systems.  These issues never got resolved in 12 years because the Sr. Staff couldn’t and wouldn’t make a decision.  Not a single staff member had the kahones to step in and say “enough”.   We spent millions talking about change and filling in comparison spreadsheets but nothing ever got done about it.  Not to mention engineering process differences at the sites went unaddressed for nearly a decade.  Politics ruled and it wasn’t pretty.  Senior manager indecision set in motion a bunch of site process wars that did not need to happen and were a huge drag on productivity and morale.  They always took the chicken way out and left it to the squirrels in the cage to solve their own problems.  The problem is, the management teams all the way up couldn’t agree.  So it was the engineers and front line managers who suffered, forever trying to convince the other sites of a common process to put the issue to rest.  Despite our best efforts, we never reached agreement, mainly due to obstinate management chains at other sites.  Total lack of Senior leadership to let this go on for as long as it did.

The most egregious mistake Ursula made was throwing in the towel on American Workers and the technology business and reasoning that she could bet the future of the Xerox Technology business on an Indian partner.  In 2010, Xerox signed an outsourcing deal with an Indian firm named HCL Technologies.  HCL markets themselves as an Outsourcing Partner with top-notch engineering talent.  This is bullshit.

As a company, HCL is a huckster.  A pretender.  An impostor.  A swindler of the highest order.  They promise quality talent and deliver individuals from diploma mills who can barely speak-a-da English  They map out services they will deliver and then go missing for weeks at a time.  They “take over” areas of responsibility and then when the bills for maintenance come due they forgot their checkbook.  I know several people who approached the ‘partnership’ with an open mind, willing to  give the Indian firm a chance.  They were disappointed.  While we were promised that supported would be a “mixture” of on-site personnel and some offshore, in no time at all it was 100% offshore and it sucked.   I had two employees get denied their severance packages for opting out of the HCL experiment.  Disappointing to watch good employees get treated so poorly by a VP on a power trip.

The HCL deal and watching it go down was the last straw for me.  The Wilsonville site used to proudly boast that it employed about 1500 people who mainly focused on Solid Ink technology and were very proud of the products they produced.  Pre-Ursula, on Saturdays, the parking lots used to be reasonably full.  People wanted to come to work and put in extra hours for the company.  These were some of the finest engineers in the world.  But Ursula ushered in an era that changed all of that.   Suddenly there was no incentive to work hard or innovate.  As the bumper sticker says, the beatings will continue until morale improves.  The whole thing is a lost opportunity to leverage the engineering talent you have, incentivize them to innovate your way to high growth.  I believe this is what companies with a Technology person at the top actually do when faced with this same situation.  When will the Xerox Board figure this out?

As of a few months ago, Ursula has essentially killed the Solid Ink product line.  So she and her peers, along with Anne, invested a cool billion in a printer division, put another billion into it developing an A3 size engine for solid ink, and then just recently decided to throw the whole thing down the shitter.

Apparently the new model for printer development is to have the Xerox value-add be its brand name and to project manage the development process from afar.  Xerox won’t really do any more of its own Engineering or development.  That may be over-stated somewhat, but basically the new model is to slap an engine from an Asian partner on a controller board from who knows where, top it off with some software written primarily in India and you’ve got yourself a printer.  Call me skeptical but I don’t think this will work and I truly pity the poor bastards left behind to do project management.  I’d rather collect aluminum cans than be on the phone coordinating crappy deliverables from third-party companies who couldn’t care less.

So it’ll be interesting to see what Ursula’s legacy will be.  The big question is, can the low margin services side of the business grow fast enough to cover up for the tanking technology side?  If it can, she might get away with the madness and salvage her legacy.  If not, look for another unflattering book on Xerox’s inability to take its innovations to market, with pictures of Ursula in the final chapters.


The Internet full up in 4-5 years?

Markus Hoffman, head of Bell Labs, in a recent Scientific American article states that at we are approaching something called the Shannon limit, which is basically synonymous with being maxed out on the amount of internet traffic.

He predicts that a doubling of existing traffic levels will happen happen in the next 4-5 years.  Since the internet is just a tad over 40 years old, and now we’re doubling in 4 years’ time, this represents exponential growth.

The two solutions being talked about are 1) Add infrastructure (more fiber and satellite networks), and 2) make the infrastructure smarter by using deep packet inspection to interpret the significance of the data before routing, the latter being more likely.

Interesting stuff.  I can see where this could get very political due to access to my data when I need it ( priority ) and also for security reasons.

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Why PowerPoint is the worst tool ever

I blame powerpoint for a lot of the decline in the American economy.  It’s just so damn convincing.  

Perhaps Ross Perot was right.  We are experiencing a giant ‘sucking’ sound as a result of NAFTA.  Jobs are being shipped overseas just like he predicted.  There’s been a leveling of the playing field if you will.  Cheap labor in Mexico, India, China and other countries has given even the best American corporations like Intel, Nike, and Apple the incentive to ship jobs overseas.  Initially the biggest hit was in the manufacturing sector, but it didn’t take long to leak over into many traditional white-collar areas like Engineering.

Under tremendous cost pressures, a plethora of Sr. Vice Presidents opted for the ‘bold play’. The big move.  The one that would turn heads at the Sr. staff meeting with the projected savings.  Invariably the message was in the form of an Outsourcing Strategy.

Who could argue with the numbers?  They looked awesome on the powerpoint.

The hidden down-side of these decisions was soon discovered by the likes of Dell who, after outsourcing their call centers to India, soon reversed the decision after customer complaints piled up, not the least of which was an enormous language barrier. 

India is pretty skilled at marketing their cheap labor, though they inflate the educational achievements of their workforce tremendously.  India has some top notch schools that develop outstanding Engineers.  But they also have diploma mills that pump out sub-standard engineers that work at companies like HCL Technologies, one of the worst offenders in misrepresenting their workforce that I’ve ever seen.

Should you be so unfortunate to get hooked up with HCL as a partner, be prepared to work with Junior Engineers who lack several key skills required to complete a project.  Troubleshooting skills, language skills, taking initiative, process improvement, and working across 12 time-zones comes to mind.  They are just one of many Indian “rip-offs” out there that promise the moon and deliver magic beans.  

The good news is that finally, the trend may be reversing.  After extended exposure to just how mucked up projects can get using the outsourcing model, companies ( at least the smarter ones ), are starting to reverse trend.  

If it looks good on power-point, ask questions.  Lots of them.  





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